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The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

Key to the success of Argyle International Airport (AIA) is the issue of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ (SVG) mainland hotel capacity, also known as “if you build it, where will they stay?” According to the 2015 official SVG tourist guide, the mainland has a hotel capacity of only 564 hotel, apartment, and guesthouse rooms, hardly sufficient to accommodate the tens of thousands of new visitors AIA is supposed to attract. (There are a couple hundred more rooms in short-term efficiency units, private homes, small apartment complexes, and duplexes that are not listed or well advertised and thus generally unavailable to international travellers). Fully 17 per cent of these are located at the island’s largest guest facility, the troubled Buccament Bay Hotel and Resort, which took retirement savings from elderly British investors years ago to build some 1,200 income-generating holiday villas. Few of these were ever completed in what is now a half-derelict project and only 98 are listed as available for rental.

This government, like others in the region, has a more than generous incentive programme for new hotel development. But only tepid interest has been shown so far by local hoteliers and none by reputable international hotel chains or investors even though the “substantially complete” airport is into its tenth year since conception and set to be open for business just months from now.

In the 2015 Budget Address, the Prime Minister argued that the “impending opening” of AIA “… has drawn a group of Canadian investors to present a proposal to the government for a US$200 million hotel investment at Mt. Wynne/Peters Hope. Our government has accorded “approval in principle” for the proposal. The government and the Canadian investors are likely to sign a Memorandum of Understanding within a few weeks, hopefully in February 2015”.

We have heard about investor interest at Mt. Wynne/Peter’s Hope for years. Could this be the same (very patient) investors or is this some new interest? Where is the approximate location of the “hotel investment”? After all, the Mt. Wynne/Peter’s Hope region consists of three different bayside region and adjoining lands totalling 400-500 acres (depending on different estimates), an area that could easily hold a dozen large hotels, each valued at EC$200 million, plus countless other recreational activities, perhaps even an 18-hole golf course.

A single full-service luxury resort complex costing this much would likely contain no more than 120-150 units, hardly justification for the construction of a billion dollar airport. The same budget also mentions other local hospitality sector endeavours which, together with the Mt. Wynne/Peter’s Hope project, would raise our mainland room capacity to a paltry 750 at most.

In contrast, St. Lucia today has some 5,000 hotel rooms available for holiday rental, 2,000, or 40 per cent, of which were in place and doing business years before a serious increase in regularly scheduled international flights began in the 1980s, according to Gregor Nassief, president of the Dominican Hotel and Tourism Association. The same holds for Grenada, says Mr. Nassief, which had 1,000 rooms available 10 years before regularly scheduled international flights displaced irregular charter and regional commuter flights.

What this and countless other examples show is that demand generally pushes supply, not the other way round, in the transportation sector of the hospitality industry. This is why the Prime Minister’s now famous (or infamous) Aug. 8, 2005 justification for building AIA because, “Our country’s tourism potential would not be fully realised unless we build an international airport” made no sense then and makes even less sense now on the eve of AIA’s planned completion. Simply put, there was no compelling need or potential demand for the airport in 2005; with no significant growth in tourism numbers in the past 10 years, there is even less need or potential demand for the airport in 2015.

Part of the breathtaking beach at Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau
Part of the breathtaking beach at Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau

Perhaps the best proof that “fully realising our country’s tourism potential” means more development not on the mainland but in the captivating Grenadines, our very own 32-island pearl necklace, a glorious gift from God and nature, if there ever was one. The international media, including the influential New York Times, know this, as do many Vincentians, judging from the boats sailing there every long weekend with passenger numbers exceeding those picnicking at our mainland beaches. (The Prime Minister and his family have been spotted holidaying there as well.)

These tiny islands, which make up only 11 per cent of the nation’s land mass, have a total of 409 guest rooms of all types and well over 100 rental villas, mostly at the pricey end of the accommodation continuum. (Again, there are many more rooms in private homes and apartments in larger dwellings which are not listed so can hardly be counted as available to most international travellers). Luxury villa rental rates on Mustique during the high season, for example, range from a miserly US$7,000 per week to a princely US$75,000 per week. The only way to get to Mustique is by boat or small plane, testimony to the fact that super-rich home owners and their wealthy villa renters have long been more than happy to build, live, and holiday in our country without the presence of an international airport.

The Grenadines also host nearly all the country’s revenue-generating yacht visits. This is critical because the spending of yachters on water taxis, fuel, meals, alcohol, groceries, other provisions, boat equipment and repairs, anchorage and mooring fees, long-term storage, overnight stays, etc. dwarfs anything cruise ship passengers spend during their brief mainland visits. All this development in our enchanting and famous cays has occurred without non-stop international air traffic.

And then there is the captivating island of Canouan which can easily accommodate international flights at its grossly underused jetport but has too few hotels and villas to attract any regularly scheduled flights from the United States or elsewhere for the reasons already given. Even from a passenger perspective, if a single US airline decided to service Canouan with five flights a week, each carrying only 200 tourists for a seven-night stay during the peak winter season, most would have to bring camping gear and sleep on the beach given the low hotel and villa capacity (41 hotel rooms and some 40 or more villas), almost eight years after the completion of the international jetport. Conversely, even if accommodation numbers doubled or tripled over the next few years — depending on whether the chronic feuding between developers on the island ever ceases — the globally competitive and limited nature of super-elite tourism means there is no guarantee that “if you build it, they will come”.

Tourism, St. Barts-Style.
Tourism, St. Barts-Style.

A good comparison to jetport-rich but tourist-poor Canouan is the tiny Caribbean island of St. Barts (25 square kilometres; 9,000 permanent residents), playground to the rich and famous and arguably one of the priciest and most exclusive places to holiday on God’s earth. The tourist industry attracts about 200,000 visitors a year, 130,000 by luxury boat, and has given islanders a per capita GDP that is higher than its mother country, France.

The wide range of accommodation in St. Barts comprises 70 per cent luxury villas and 30 per cent hotels. There are some 635 of the former (most of them available for rental) and 500 hotel rooms. Both figures are much higher than their Canouan or mainland St. Vincent counterparts.

The only way to get to St. Barts is by plane to a tiny airport whose runway is less than half the length of the one at E. T. Joshua Airport from neighbouring Sint Maarten, by an occasional flight from Guadalupe, or by boat.

So much for needing an international airport to “fully realise our country’s tourism potential”.

***

ENDNOTE

This is the tenth in a series of 15 essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.

The rest may be found at:

  1. Get ready for a November election!
  2. Lessons for Argyle Airport from Canada’s Montreal–Mirabel Int’l
  3. Lessons for Argyle Int’l Airport from the cruise industry
  4. Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle Int’l Airport
  5. Lessons from Trinidad & Tobago for Argyle Int’l Airport
  6. The Dark Side of Tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
  7. Why Argyle Won’t Fly: Lessons from Dominica
  8. Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
  9. Airport Envy Vincy-Style

***

C. ben-David

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

12 replies on “Fully realising our country’s tourism potential”

  1. As usual David you have done justice to your argument about this Phantom airport. Even Mitchell made a mistake with the Bequia airport. He should have known that the Grenadines attract a larger number of yachters than people travelling by plane. Ralph followed Mitchell blunder by building an airport in their back yard. SVG airport cannot be International. A larger airport to accommodate planes larger than the Dash 8 yes, but that’s it. The airport is not what attracts visitors, but the holiday resources available to the tourist. These resources with the exception of large housing capacity can be found only in the Grenadines. That’s where money should be spent to attract the yachters who still remain the majority of tourist visiting SVG. Incidentally, with the Cuban and American arrangement will see a decrease of tourist arrivals in the rest of Caribbean islands. We may see a decline of tourist boats in the Windward Islands if Cuba is included in their schedule. This would be detrimental to SVG tourism industry, which is already suffering from the low arrivals of these boats.
    Once again David your professional assessment of the airport situation is a welcome eye-opener to those who believe they would soon be flying into Argyle. There are many other issues to consider like resources if there is an accident. Recently Canada had an experience where people were left in the snow for a long time, after an accident, dressed in clothing they wore in the Caribbean. This airport in a rich country was not ready; can you imagine what will happen in a poor country like SVG if there is a plane disaster? I’d love to fly directly to SVG, but I also love to live a long life.
    Thanks again David.
    .

  2. Clement Percival says:

    I wonder how much more sound analysis, strong logic, and basic good commonsense must be employed to get the message of Gonsalves Folly across. There are none so blind as those who choose not to see! The problem is that we will have to live with that folly for a very long time, and try to make something out of it. But I can hear some of the TRUE BELIEVERS, some fifteen years down the road, after the efforts of the different governments to come, to really construct a tourism product, and sector and a strong response to those initiatives by the local, regional, and international private sector, and some airlines at last begin to come in, I can just hear them then ” YOU SEE! IF THE GREAT MAN HAD NOT DESTROYED THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE OF THE COUNTRY BACK THEN ON HIS FOLLY, WE WOULD NOT HAVE THOSE PLANES NOW!! i would laugh if it was not so serious. Ah! The costs of foolishness!

  3. As always a great insight from someone who actually does their homework. Keep up the fire and the re-education of the vincy public.

  4. Only persons who do not travel by air ,Overseas are bleating about the International Airport,
    They evidently are totally unaware of behaviour of the People at the Barbados that Airport , and the various tricks that are employed to make in transit Passengers overnight in Barbados .
    I can spend a lot of time on the subject of being in transit in Barbados . I however will not do that ; What I do know is that at one time Barbados was the hub for American Airlines , but then
    it made Puerto Rico the Hub , perhaps because Passengers complained about the People at
    the Sir Grantley Adams Airport , essentially the Airport in Barbados is like being in a Country ,
    in the Island of Barbados . If you don’t believe me ask Ms Myrie .

    The fact is that various Political Parties have been in the governance of SVG ; they never bestirred themselves to build an International Airport , which was Stupid , because had any
    of them done that , the price tag would have been much lower . So this must be factored into the equation , when ANY discussion of the cost of the current airport is voiced .

    It is true that there are limited Hotel Rooms , on the mainland , but consideration must be given
    to the fact that it would be fool hardy to build Hotels on the mainland , if there is no concrete
    evidence that the Government of the day is building an International Airport . Now that the Airport is being built , Obviously Hotels will be built .

    I am appalled , by the fact that the Author , is implying that there aint much to see on the mainland , that is not true , and the Author is fully aware of this fact . I wonder if the NDP was
    in the governance of SVG , would he be writing all these negative Stories, emphasis on the word Stories . Frankly , I believe that the Author would be Euphoric , and praising the NDP
    NON STOP .

    The NDP was in the governance of SVG for years , they did not do any thing , it is quite possible that had they built an International Airport , they would would still be in the governance of SVG . I am reminded of the very well known adage :

    ” WHEN THE FOX COULD NOT GET THE GRAPES HE SAID THAT THEY WERE SOUR ”

    It is amazing

    1. Let me say this for those who are unaware St. Barts Airport is a disaster , and is listed as : ONE OF THE WORST AIRPORTS IN THE WORLD . Evidently
      it seems that the Author , is hell bent on blaming all the ills of Tourism on the
      current Government .

      The Truth is however , blame must be put on ALL THE POLITICIANS of SVG
      REGARDLESS OF POLITICAL STRIPE . It is therefore absurd tar the current
      Government for all the Ills of Tourism in SVG . Perhaps the Author should also give a review on what various Governments in SVG did , or did not do regarding Tourism in the Region . Failure to do that will inform me that the
      Author has a Vendetta against the current Government .

  5. I am reminded of the person who wished that a Tsunami would come and destroy the Argyle
    International Airport . Comments like this are very unhelpful , and I have absolutely no doubt
    that she was expressing & sharing the sentiments of some in SVG .

    The NDP had opportunities to build an International Airport , they did nothing . In fact I recall
    that the Prime Minister once stated that the Grenadines were going to secede from the mainland , perhaps that is why he built an Airport in Bequia .

    St. Vincent & the Grenadines belong to ALL OF US , therefore , when ever progress is made
    by any Government it must be acknowledged rather than some wishing ill of what is being done . I would have been delighted if the NDP , had built an Airport , but history tells us that it
    did not do that . Essentially it squandered its chances to do that , it therefore only has itself to
    blame for not building an International Airport . I don’t recall reading or hearing of any impediment that prevented the NDP Government from building an International Airport .

    That being the case , why wish ill on the Argyle Airport ; by writing a series of Articles , the
    Argyle Airport is for the benefit of ALL VINCENTIANS regardless of Political affiliation . Those
    of us who live in the Diaspora regardless of who built it welcome it . My take is that it is better
    for US to have OUR OWN AIRPORT rather than have to go to Barbados ; Trinidad or Grenada .

    Mention has been made about the distance from Argyle to those who live in the Leeward side of the mainland . The International Airport in St. Lucia , is miles away from Castries & Gros Islet . Airports can only be built where it is feasible to be built . Some time in the future , fast Ferries would be able to shuttle people on the Leeward side to a Bay close to the Argyle Airport , just an idea .

    1. I find it very interesting that when ever I write in this online Newspaper , it takes
      a long time before what I write is moderated . I am of the opinion , that some who write here do not have to wait as long I have to get what they write moderated .

      I guess this must also be moderated .

  6. Perhaps many who read this Newspaper are stricken with Writers Cramp . I expected that
    there would be a flurry of persons coming forward to attempt debunking what I have stated .
    The gist of what I have stated is this ,

    Previous Governments of both Parties , failed decades ago to build an International Airport .

    Had they done that the cost would have been much less than the current cost of the Airport .

    The failure to build an International Airport , demonstrated , at least to me that , there was
    no Vision & Foresight .

    Obviously had the Government of the day years ago built an International Airport , SVG
    would already have Hotels & the required Services in place by now .

    Let me again state the fact that it would be foolhardy for Business People to build Hotels ,
    when there was no Airport . However , many seem to relish scoring meaningless , Cheap
    Political Points .

    Let me say to the Moderator , it is disgusting that what I write in this Newspaper has to take
    days before it is moderated ; I am beginning to believe that perhaps English is not
    the Moderator’s first language , since it takes a long time for what I write to be read by the
    Moderator .

  7. Clement Percival says:

    Let me rise to take take Verdical’s overt political bait. The reason why there may not have been a response could very well be that most persons like myself simply “steupsed” and dismissed those comments for the political diatribe that they are. Strip the political attacks and commentary out of the posts, and there is nothing left. Verdical clearly misses the point in his haste to stage a political rather than a technical and economic defense. That is because there is no technical and economic defense. Mr. Verdical posits the value of the airport on its use to the Vincentian diaspora. Does that deserve a response? After all of the analyses that show clearly that this cannot be the basis on which to pursue such a costly option? He does not understand investment decision making nor proper development policy formulation. To say that the hotels were not there because there was no airport is so ridiculous as to be beyond belief. The hotels are not there because the level of demand is not there, and the level of demand is not there because the tourism product has not been sufficiently developed. That is were the investment should have been. In fairness to the NDP, this was the focus of their tourism strategy. Improve the product, and then the investment, including large scale infrastructure will make sense, depending on the market response. So the so-called failure of the NDP to build an airport makes sense. It was triggered by a simple concept. Could it be afforded from the country’s own or accessible resources, and would have made been a correct public policy decision at that time?
    So Verdical, do drop the political blinkers and partisan embrace, and start thinking logically and clearly, then perhaps there will be more response to you.

  8. C. ben-David says:

    Dear Veridical,

    I have repeatedly argued that an international airport would have been built in SVG decades ago had it been needed, as was the case throughout the Caribbean. Airports were built mainly where needed, not just because the people wanted one.

    An international airport in SVG was not needed then and it is not needed now for all the reasons I and others have presented on this news site.

    As for St. Barts, an international airport is not needed there, as I have shown, to bring in hundreds of thousands of wealthy tourists.

    The same holds for many, many other islands around the world that have no international airport but do have a thriving tourism industry.

    Those of us who are anti-Arglye are surely not anti-SVG or anti-patriotic or pro-NDP (which also supports the airport). We are simply being realistic about the prospects for the new airport, based on actual evidence from SVG and elsewhere.

    I know it is hard to put emotion aside in these kinds of arguments but if we really love (also an emotion) SVG, as I’m sure we all do, we have to take a cold, hard look at our country, its politics, its leaders, and its prospects for development.

    1. What you seem not to realise ris that an international airport (like government utilities) is not merely a response to existing demand, but is a development tool and, arguably, a vital government service. Government has a duty to provide it both to promote what tourism potential there is, AND to cater to the travel needs of locals. It is unthinkable that they should have to use another country’s international airport to access the world.

      In the Bahamas, successive governments have built and maintained international airports on even some of the remotest islands. Marsh Harbour airport in Abaco was recently upgraded with a brand new terminal. And that is for an island with a population of 20,000 souls! SVG has 120,000!!! To argue that it does not deserve an international airport seems bizarre to me.

      1. C. ben-David says:

        Just saw this post. I can’t comment because I’ve been unable to find Abaco Islands tourism statistics. But as far as providing access for 20,000 people, if tourism numbers are low, this would be a horrible misuse of government revenue with so many international airports a stone’s throw away. Governments build all sorts of stuff just to get votes so maybe the new terminal was just a vote getter.

        If you have the stats for overnight stays over the past few years, please pass them on to me.

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